5000 Mile Project: The Carretera Austral; Can it really be “improved”?
We started on an ice rink, slipping and sliding over frozen snow through blizzards and hail-storms in southern Patagonia. Then we found gravel, pot-holes, precipitous drops and tortuous hills. We’ve run over 1,100 miles of our 5000mileproject and in a couple of days, we will become the first to have run the infamous Carretera Austral, Chile’s wild “highway”, extending deep into Patagonia’s heart.
So what right do we have to scorn roads? Without them we wouldn’t have succeeded in penetrating into Chile’s jaw-dropping wildernesses, camped by streams in which torrent ducks dive and pumas lap, nor ogled Andean condors metres above our heads.
We scorn them because there are roads and there are roads!! The gravel surface and the sinuous turns of the Carretera Austral provides a natural filter to access and activities permeating this fragile landscape. For over 750 miles, we’ve recorded, sniffed and felt every turn of this serpent of roads. Now, there is change afoot, underfoot! A multimillion dollar plan to “improve” the road.
New concreted stretches of road. And with each straightened, widened, drained section come more cars. More “sleeping” people in their boxes. More beer cans flung from car windows. Slicks of diesel seep into the marshes. The thunder of trucks replaces the thunder of waterfalls. Beret-wearing, horse-back-riding-gauchos make way for the shining four-wheel versions. Pick-ups are the new currency, jostling for first place with cattle. Once barely accessible communities become viable.
But are these settlements really viable, with every exorbitantly priced product lining the shop shelves transported for miles from the north to feed these burgeoning towns? Why is Chile investing so heavily in these far flung settlements? Is it to guard border territory against its neighbouring giant? Or is it in fact part of a grand plan to pave and tame the south to extract resources, following General Pinochet’s lead, the man who first began the construction of the road in 1976? This exploitation of resources is what the people of Patagonia are most concerned about and yet many forget to connect the promised highway with its potential as a destructive force
One of the most stunning stretches of the expedition so far was running over the mountain pass of Quelat National Park, plunging into untouched forest and rugged mountains. The road was beguiling, narrow and gravelly. It moved organically with the landform, rather than imposed. We watched legions of orange Mohican-spiked caterpillars attempting their painfully slow “dash” across the road.
Roads such as these are not part of the plan. Too insignificant, too atypical. Chile appears bound to emulate the global vision of “the highway”. And so we run onto the newly black tarmacked road south of Chaiten. White dashes mark the centre, cats’ eyes demark the lanes for whom, to where, for why?
What is categorically clear from our own research, countless papers and plain common sense is that speed kills. As we humans wrap ourselves in thicker, more durable shells and bomb at faster speeds, wildlife falls. Patagonian Humbolt skunks, Patagonian armadillos, guanacos, Austral blackbirds, just some of the causalities we have counted on the improved sections as we run.
But it’s not just straight forward death. All roads, but fast roads most dramatically lance habitats, slice through territories, watersheds, migration routes. Wildlife doesn’t follow our anthropogenic neatly ruled lines. So populations are divided and foraging grounds reduced. Viability of remote or endangered groups threatened. For highly fragmented and critically endangered species such as the Patagonian huemul deer or Chilote fox, a road can spell the end.
Main roads bristle with invasive species, their seeds carried by cars, trucks, people, domestic animals. Wild rose, pine, lupines, eucalyptus, Japanese knotweed; such names might scent of nostalgia, but in the wrong place, in the wrong country, without a natural predator they rampage. Free to march through Patagonia’s habitats, replacing native plants and impacting the native wildlife dependent on them.
All around the world, people are trying to mitigate the problems of major roads. Underpasses allow frogs, newts and salamanders to slip un-squished to their ancestors’ spawning grounds. Mighty green bridges allow moose and bears to cross highways unscathed. Towering fences attempt to convince the white ghost of a barn owl to fly high, up and over motorways, avoiding the rich but lethal pickings of the road-side verges.
To remove the Carretera Austral is not an option. But do these remotest of regions, settled by a mere 200,000 people really need the grandest of roads? It’s amazing the reaction we receive when chatting with Chileans, from all parts of this exceedingly long country, about our running the length of the Carretera Austral. A glimmer crosses their eyes, “Que Lindo”, “How Lovely”, they say. So why not maintain this road as a road that’s more a track? For communities and visitors alike who are determined to live and travel in such incredible wildernesses. Where hummingbirds buzz over the tree-tops, foxes slumber by the stream and the wood frog quartet play from deep in the liquid forest.5000mileproject, Carretera Austral, Chile, ecology, Patagonia, roads, wildlife
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter